Cibola 112

This entry is part 111 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos de la Sierra (a.k.a. El Donado)

The land lives within me
like a nest of nails.
I know what they want from me,
these hypocrites: to renounce
the world, the flesh,
all creatures,
all Indian thoughts.
                                I know
as much about God as they do,
possibly more: which is to say,
nothing. A night wind,
an obsidian mirror
that fogs with your dying breath.
No prayers, no ticking glass beads
can you take . . . even
the crucified Christ
gets left behind. Why linger
in the doorway, clinging
to the empty frame?

I was born with a caul–
singled out for service to Tlaloc,
rain-god & gourmand.
Cortez came just in time.

The friars say I was given to the church
through a misunderstanding:
it seems my parents were among
the first few thousand converts,
heeded the exhortation to plunder
their former idols.
It seems they were hoping
to save their own skins
from the pox.

Imitatio Cristi indeed–a lamb of God
ready for the spit
before I even reached the age of reason.
Now turned scapegoat, put out
to find forage in the desert.
Free to harangue
every whirlwind.

(To be continued.)

El Donado – “The Donated One”: In the early years of the Conquest, Indian children were donated to – or kidnapped by – a religious order and raised as servants and oblates. Many among the idealistic first wave of Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits dreamed of creating a Christian utopia in the New World, and assumed that the Vatican would soon grant permission for full native admission to the priesthood and religious orders. This never happened. The sincerity of Native American Christians remained suspect for hundreds of years – and in fact is still distrusted by conservative Catholics for whom any hint of syncretism or deviation from Western European cultural norms is tantamount to heresy.

This Indian Marcos is an invented character who first appeared by name in Cibola 80, and was mentioned in a couple of the “Marcos” sections. I picture him as a non-Nahuatl native of what is now central Mexico, perhaps an Otomí­.

A night wind, an obsidian mirror: Traditional pre-Christian images for the divine.

Tlaloc: God of the earth or underworld, which native Mesoamerican peoples picture as an all-devouring monster or serpent (but also as the main afterlife destination, the place we visit in dreams, and to some extent a mirror of the aboveground world).

Cibola 113

This entry is part 112 of 119 in the series Cibola


Marcos de la Sierra (a.k.a. El Donado) (conclusion)

But I don’t have a quarrel with the Lord
of the Close-at-Hand,
only with you who brandish
the law of Love.
You who flaunt
your stylized poverty,
patched robe & cowl
I’m forbidden to wear.
Telling yourselves that more virtue accrues
the more wealth & privilege you’ve had
to give up.

Or if sincerely humble–like this
haunted Frenchman, Marcos–unsuited
for battle. At the mercy of storms
& currents he can’t
even name.

This is an Order where bullies flourish,
men poisoned by envy of our own Founder.
They say the fighting started
while he still walked the earth,
too saintly to understand
the ways of vipers.

They say he preached to birds,
to unschooled fish.
Who then went
throughout the world to spread
the gospel. So
we who have gotten
all our news of Heaven
from birds
for ages–
what do we need these friars for?

Ah, but–says the Saint
in my dreams–
they need you.

Lord of the Close-at-Hand: Aztec designation for one of their chief deities, applied also to God by the first Christian converts.

Cibola 114

This entry is part 113 of 119 in the series Cibola


Reader (20)

Gold is shining in your sapodilla house of trogons.
Your home abounds in jade water whorls, O prince,
O Jesucristo.
You’re singing in Anahuac. . . .
You’re hidden away at Seven Caves
where the mesquite grows.
The eagle cries, the jaguar whines; you,
in the midst of the field–a roseate quechol–
fly onward, in the Place Unknown.
(adapted from the John Bierhorst translation of Cantares Mexicanos 33:3-8)

You people desired to capture Elder Brother so that you might destroy him. You secured the assistance of Vulture, who made a miniature earth; you saw him at home engaged in this work. He shaped the mountains, defined the water courses, placed the trees, and in four days completed his task. Mounting the zigzag ladders of his house he flew forth and circled until he saw Elder Brother. Vulture saw blue flames issuing from Elder Brother’s heart and knew that he was invulnerable. In his turn Elder Brother knew that Vulture wished to kill him and had made the miniature earth for that purpose.
“Elder Brother as He Restored Himself to Life” (version of a traditional Akimel O’odham speech/sermon)

Cibola 115

This entry is part 114 of 119 in the series Cibola


Simon Zopeloxochitl

My lord, the black nahualli is dead.
I went with the brownrobes as
you ordered, saw to it
that the lay brother called Honoratio
got left behind in Petatlán
with a sudden sickness.

Lacking a second white man, then–
an official witness–what Spaniard
would take the word of one
credulous friar, however many
natives he quotes? A foreigner even
among foreigners: he speaks their castellano
worse than I do. And whatever he meant
by “city of gold”–a world-denier
like him–no one thought to wonder.
Coronado’s soldiers hated him
from start to finish.

The nahualli Esteban is dead:
& with him the gravest threat
to the gods of our long-lost cousins
at Chicomoztoc,
at the Seven Caves.

I escaped their arrows;
they let me live among them
until the governor’s visit.
I taught them the art
of surrender, how to avoid
the yellowbeard’s venom.
To lend him what he asks for
without giving up the title.
At my insistence they kept
their sacred images out of sight, just
as if they were women, or reckless
boys. I recounted the pathetic
tale of Montezuma.

They would’ve killed me
for a witch as well
but I repeated Esteban’s admonitions
in language they’d accept:
You can’t stop a torrent–
but you
can stand back, let
your check-dams capture the silt,
the rich litter.

(To be continued.)

Simon Zopeloxochitl is an invented character. He first made his appearance as a participant in the song contest (see Cibola 86).

The idea of an Aztec sorcerer travelling with Esteban and Marcos as an undercover anthropologist/ambassador to “Cibola” is not as far-fetched as it may seem. The Aztec origin myth of Seven Caves and a Place of Herons somewhere in the far north was given new life by the reports of Seven Cities brought back by Cabeza de Vaca, Esteban and their companions, and was partly responsible for fueling the enthusiasm for an expedition of conquest. (The myth lives on to this day, reflected in the name of the state of New Mexico and in local NM toponymns such as Montezuma and Aztec.) In a few years, a native Aztec revivalist movement would spark rebellions and possibly even a Ghost Dance-type attempt at a new religion, according to one scholar (John Bierhorst). The unspecified “lord” addressed here is presumably a disgruntled nobleman or native priest plotting a revolt.

nahualli – In Nahuat belief, a shaman/sorcerer able to transform him/herself into an animal for travel in the underworld; broadly, any skilled magic-worker.

the governor’s visit – Coronado’s expedition of 1540.

Cibola 116

This entry is part 115 of 119 in the series Cibola


Simon Zopeloxochitl (cont’d)

My lord, it’s true, everything
I’ve written: they honor the Lords
of Earth & Sky without drawing
a drop of blood.
Any man can carve a god
in his own image: feathered shaft,
sacrifice reduced to mere intent,
pure attention.
Their priests, sitting in darkness,
can raise the Earth’s very pulse.

Despite their suspicions, they let me
observe their ceremonies–though once
they found a pile of my sketches
& burned them. I learned
of a lake to the west where
the ancestors live, a place of herons.

It’s true, they impersonate
the gods of our youth:
Xilonen, Xochipilli, Xiuhtecuhtli.
No writing, no calendar competes
for the Sun Priest’s loyalty;
his accounting is immaculate.
The nameless days
announce themselves
simply by showing their unrepeatable faces.

I have learned
the Popoloca murmur
of wind through dry reeds,
the blood-colored canyons
where the rivers go
to hide under roots of willows.
I have seen the sun & the moon
trade places.

Toward the end, the nahualli
rarely slept except in snatches.
He half-believed a yellowbeard fable
that left no place for him,
an above-ground version of
that World where every locale
melts into every other.

Out of cliffs & crags & buttes
he tried to dream it:
a No-Place just for him,
garden within walls.
They scattered his remains
like dangerous seeds across what they call
Corn Mountain.

When I found the hidden trail to the top
I brought two scraps of deer hide
I’d prepared in lieu of paper,
one dyed red, the other painted black.
On the red parchment
in black ink I inscribed
the names of Christ–
Dios, Plumed Serpent,
Tloque Nahuaque, Sacred Heart–

& on the black scrap, in red ink
the mirror-words
for Tezcatl-Ipoca:

I opened a vein, scattered my heart’s
petals across both pieces,
placed them at opposite ends of the butte.
In four directions I sent my breath,
calling Vulture by his secret name,
Lord of Oracles.

Six days later
when I went to check
both scraps were gone.
Two scrolls of coyote shit
sat in their place,
concise & pointed.

Popoloca – Barbarian. What the Aztecs and other Mexica invaders of the Valley of Mexico were called by the urbanized Toltec, whom they eventually supplanted.

the gods of our youth – I.e., those presumed to predate their cultural assimilation into Mesoamerica.

a yellowbeard fable – I.e., the Seven Cities myth of a Christian utopia in the wilderness.

one dyed red, the other painted black – The Aztec kenning (traditional metaphor) for writing is “the black and the red,” referring to the colors of ink used for the glyphs and illustrations.

mirror-words – Aztec kenning for a kenning.

Tezcatl-Ipoca was the patron deity of sorcerers and the mythological opponent of Quetzalcoatl, the plumed serpent. The former was identified primarily with the Mexica and the latter with the Toltecs and their predecessors.

Cibola 117

This entry is part 116 of 119 in the series Cibola


Simon Zopeloxochitl (conclusion)

My lord, this stranger whose dream-
double I could never find, this shaper
of destinies, his mist still lingers.
Though one who took
the ash heap for a mother,
the crossroads for a father–
though a slave–his rumor
still lends an iridescence
to these ruined cliffs.

In the end as in the beginning
no tongue is equal to its task,
a soft piece of leather flapping
between flint knives.
The sayings of the wise,
the paintings,
the flowery songs–all vanish
in the flames of rebirth. And since
even the sages couldn’t tell
whether we dream or wake,
how can our strongest spells
be more
than smoke?

My lord Yacatecuhtli,
the vulture is a thing that circles
& never has to land.
Everything he sees is on the way
to its final appointment:
all words to him
are last words.

Grant your servant instead
the penultimate: the four-
cornered flower
turning in the dark, rooted
between fire & water, is & was.
In the day that nears,
let the dawn star alone
feed the sun.

Most of the metaphors in this segment are based on classical Aztec kennings. The two sentences beginning “The sayings of the wise” echo common themes in Aztec poetry.

dream-double – An animal alter-ego who lives in the underworld, where the sorcerer travels in dreams. Killing someone’s double results in their own death.

Yacatecuhtli – Patron deity of travelers, especially long-distance traders. Simon is addressing his human patron as if he were the avatar of this god.

Cibola 118

This entry is part 117 of 119 in the series Cibola


Reader (21)

–Quién es este labrador
que os responde y acompaña?
–Soy el que dice al revés
todas las cosas que habra.
(“Who’s this yokel of yours
always chiming in, talking back?”
“I’m the one who says the opposite
of everything there is.”)
El mejor alcalde, el rey

Beyond creeds and anti-creeds, the [Neweekwe] clowns, by their ability not only to conceive but to carry out their burlesques, display their ultimate detachment from the particulars of religious beliefs of all kinds. . . . In their gluttony the clowns even violate the boundaries of their biological being: not satisfied with saying the unsayable, they eat the inedible. . . . [T]hey see boundaries, of whatever sort, as easy hurdles . . .
The Beautiful and the Dangerous

The mouth knows nothing of yesterday.

Cibola 119

This entry is part 118 of 119 in the series Cibola



Feet drum
on the plaza:
from all seven cities
the people pack the terraces,
crowd the streets.
The air
crackles. Faint
whiff of ozone.
They pop
out of skylights,
fall off roofs. Children
shriek with joy.
The clowns mimic
jealous lovers,
men who can’t
get it up,
old women
who can’t get enough.
The grownups howl.
Three Newekwe circle
the Sun Priest
slowly wagging their heads
from side to side.
One pulls out a pouch
& solemnly sprinkles
handfuls of dust
as if it were sacred prayermeal.
The Milky Way People
stop at nothing,
they can drink four day-
old piss & smack
their lips, eat shit
& live. On this holy
day of feasts & dances
they bring out for
their star attraction
the Head Witch:
one of their own
dressed as a black Apache.
He grimaces,
sticks out his tongue
at the priests, dashes
around the square bellowing
an invocation to one
of the predator spirits.
And reaching under
his breechclout, leering,
pulls out a calabash.
Gusts of laughter.
He shakes it threateningly.
Another clown impersonating
the head Bow Priest
blanches, covers his eyes
with both hands, hollers
May your roads
be fulfilled!

More laughs.

(To be continued.)

Cibola 120

This entry is part 119 of 119 in the series Cibola


Cibola (cont’d)

The Ne-Witch dances
crazy–the feathers
on his arms flap,
the fetishes on his chest
flop & flash,
the rattlesnake rattles
on his legs clatter
like dry beans
being threshed. Then
the deus ex machina:
a loud thud, a cloud
of butterflies
& it’s Payatamu,
straight from
the Sun’s house
with his head on backwards,
turning somersaults.
He too reaches
between his legs, extracts
his trademark flute.
one high
& hideous note.
The Ne-Apacha topples over
to a chorus of cheers.
Leaps up
smiling his thanks,
falls back down:
cheers mixed with laughter.
(No witch stays dead
for long without
special measures.)
Six Newekwe in solemn
ceremony act out
his dismemberment
with children’s wooden knives.
One carves, another
rubs a growling belly,
a third, impatient,
tries to swallow
his own hand.
At last each takes
his cut & parades it
around the plaza:
nothing in fact
but clothes & calabash,
feathers & rattles & every
other trapping.
They wolf it down
in plain view, leave
no doubts about
their medicine power.
The clown who gets
to eat the gourd
first sits on it like an egg
then smashes it against
his forehead, stuffs
the fragments down
his gaptoothed maw,
burps extravagantly.
Another blast of the flute
& they scramble off.
*     *     *
A completely naked
sits up, stares vacantly around.
Stumbles to his feet.
The hushed crowd makes way
as he wanders slowly
out of town
heading west toward the river.
A small band of children
tailing at a distance
watch as he pauses,
spreads his arms
in a gesture that could
mean anything
& plunges in.


Payatamu: Payatamu may be compared to a cross between Apollo and Dionysius; in his Dionysian form (as here) he is often called Ne-Payatamu. The “Ne-” signifies the comic inversions identified most closely with the Newekwe clown order.

On the distinction between Payatamu and the New Age invention Kokopelli, see the very lucid explanation near the bottom of this page.

As mentioned elsewhere, “Apacha” is the Zuni word for “enemy,” applied without distinction to the various Diné (Navajo and Apache) peoples with whom they have had fraught, trading/raiding relationships over the centuries. Enemies are witches almost by definition.

For my Bahktin-influenced descriptions of the Zuni sacred clown orders, see Laughing in church and Houston, we have a problem…